Here’s the first chapter of my new novella. I’ve been told I should make this a full novel, but I’m resisting that for the moment. Let me know what you think…



Corporal Aaron Hobbes stripped off his armor, tossing each piece to clatter tonelessly into the DECON barrel nearest his locker.  The boots came off last, thudding against the other gore-covered sections of carbon fiber and nylon 3d-printed armor in the recycling pile.  He followed that by stripping off the elastic skinsuit worn beneath.  Clad now only in his underwear, he sat alone on the bench, holding his helmet in calloused fingers.  Its faceplate, scarred with a deep, ragged gash meant for his flesh, stared blindly back at him. He traced the inside of the canyon with a dirty thumbnail, feeling the ragged terrain as a toneless vibration.  This romero had almost gotten through his armor.  Right after it tore off Briggs’ head.

Hobbes grunted and threw the helmet into the bin, then stood, steadying himself with one hand on the lockers as he shuffled toward the shower stalls.  Alvin Pitts, Yolanda Wilson, and Matty Iverson were already inside, lathering up, laughing it up, and playing slap and tickle.  Yolanda’s voice, harsh yet somehow still playful, warned the boys to keep their hands to themselves.  If he closed his eyes tight enough, he could imagine he was standing in front of a classroom of unruly students.

“Try that again, Pitts, and you draw back a stump.”

“What?” Pitts whined.  “I thought you needed your back scrubbed.”

“My back is two feet higher.”  Seven years his senior, she cut off his advances like a mama lion weaned her cubs.

Iverson laughed, though whether at Yolanda or Pitts, Hobbes wasn’t sure.  He was sure that if he didn’t hurry, they’d use the last of the hot water rations before he could step under the showerhead.

Walking past a row of sinks, he caught sight of himself in the mirror and the lines around his eyes that had nothing to do with age.  His face, grizzled beard sporting patches of gray, was covered in dried blood—both the red kind, and the black sludge that flowed from the romeros veins; it made him seem strangely youthful.  None of the human blood was his own.  That had all come from Briggs and the team’s medic, Garcia.

“Whoa, simmer down, folks,” Iverson said as Hobbes entered.  “New Top on deck.”  The private teased, but it felt like a knife twisting in Hobbes’ guts.  And not because of the dark edge that always hid behind Iverson’s light banter.

“Stow that talk, Private.”  Hobbes caught his sudden shift in attitude and almost apologized.  But he wouldn’t.  He couldn’t.  “Can we at least get Briggs’ body in the compost pile before talk turns to replacing him?”

Iverson frowned and glanced at Pitts and Yolanda.

“What?”  Hobbes frowned right back and stepped under a shower head, turning the water all the way hot.  The limp, lukewarm stream trickled in lazy rivulets over his head and shoulders.

“You didn’t tell him?” Iverson said to Pitts.

Hobbes took a bar of soap and lathered his hair, then scrubbed his skin with a desperate intensity, tearing at it as if ripping away the day’s horrors.

“Tell me what?”  He rinsed quickly and stared at Pitts.

Pitts threw his hands up, palms out, like warding off a rabid dog.

“I’m just the messenger, man,” he said, that same whine still in his voice.  It was always there.  “The Old Man wants to see you.  Pronto.”

Hobbes continued to scrub.  “Me?”

Pitts winced.  “Yeah.  He, uh, caught me while you gave our after-action report to the Major.”

Iverson chuckled.  “Dude, that was, like, half an hour ago.”

Hobbes slumped, let the soap slide from his hand into the dish, and leaned into the water, turning his face up.



“Surely there’s someone more qualified, sir.”

Hobbes stood at ease, yet motionless before the wide mahogany desk.  The principal’s office still looked almost exactly as it had before the military’s remnants took over the school three weeks after the Fall.  It wasn’t as if anyone had thought to bring their own brick-a-brack to decorate the new digs, but Colonel Handy had still somehow made the place his own.  The most obvious change was the addition of a small, though well-stocked bar beside the desk.

He lifted his tumbler, sipped from the scavenged whiskey that two men died to procure, and considered his subordinate over the rim.  He set the drink down and leaned back in the creaky old chair, screwing up his face as if sniffing something rank.

“If only that were true, Corporal.  But you’re all I’ve got, since, you know, you got your sergeant killed.”

Hobbes clenched his jaw, suppressing the urge to react.  Handy waited for an explosion that never came, then frowned.

“By the by, Corporal, I’ve read your after-action report.  Just how did you escape unscathed?”  The old man taunted Hobbes, and he knew it.  After another long pause with no response from Hobbes, the colonel sighed and continued.  “Anyway, the new recruits have next to zero battle experience and almost no discipline.”  He sighed.  “They’re just not… marines.”

Hobbes cocked an eyebrow.  “Neither was I until nine months ago.”

“True, true.  The fuckin’ romeros speed up our training, don’t they?”

Or just kill off everyone but born survivors, Hobbes thought bitterly.

“Hell, boy, weren’t you just a teacher or something before all this?”

“Yes, sir.  Band director.  This very campus, in fact.”

Music.”  The word hung in the air between them like putrescent meat.

It was Hobbes, a musician, who had organized his students and held the building against the initial onslaught of romeros, taking in the uninfected and protecting the neighborhood—until Colonel Handy arrived weeks later with what remained of the forces under his command.  Hobbes had stopped teaching then and began learning.  Handy had immediately conscripted every able student into his command, with most dying in the first three months.  Hobbes mourned the loss of each, but mourned more the loss of their youth and what they might have become.  Sometimes Hobbes wished he’d left the lunatic to the flesh-eaters; it wasn’t as if many of those original soldiers were still alive.  Handy’s “marines” now consisted mostly of faculty, students, and the three surviving SROs.  Those last had gotten all the school’s janitors killed in the first attack.  Fat fucking cowards.  Handy used the cops for personal security and was welcome to them.  Hobbes certainly didn’t trust them in the field.

“Regardless, I’m jumping you up to the acting rank of Master Sergeant.”  He frowned at Hobbes’ instant look of irritation.  “Temporary, of course.  Permanent, contingent upon the success of your mission.”

Hobbes forced himself not to laugh.  Such bumps in rank—even in this new marine corps—just weren’t done.  And there was no such thing as a temporary promotion these days.  “And the mission is…?”

“Intelligence.  Long-range reconnaissance.”

Hobbes spun toward the voice coming from the shadow-shrouded corner behind him; it was deep, velvety, and colored with a hint of Alsatian.  He hadn’t seen the man standing there when he entered, nor heard so much as a breath from him the whole time.  The man, like his voice, was dark, though not from an abundance of melanin.  He was, in fact, as pale as a gamer, but thin, fit, and tall rather than overweight.  The darkness, that sucking hollow nothingness, radiated from not only his hooded brow, but his entire manner; as if all the room’s light simply gave up when it passed too near.

“Fucking drac,” Hobbes muttered.

“Ah… or more accurately, Wolfgang Armen Oberman, Spec Ops V, Intel Division,” the drac said, its words oozing around long canines.

Shit.  Shit, shit, shit.

Hobbes narrowed his eyes at the drac, then turned his hard glare back to Handy, who winced slightly before controlling himself.

“Sorry Corp… I mean Sergeant.  This comes from the highest pay grade we have left in the service.”  At a gesture from the Colonel, the drac glided toward the desk on silent boots.  “Specialist Oberman will accompany your team on a fact-finding mission, the details of which he will explain on the way.  He fills the role of Intel and Ops, and will serve as your SIC.”  Handy glanced hesitantly toward the drac.  “At no time are you to engage the enemy.”

“That seems… a little short-sighted,” Hobbes said.

“Not if security is the primary concern.”  Handy glared at Hobbes.  “Do I make myself clear, Sergeant?”

“Yes, sir.  Expendable.”  Hobbes glanced at the drac and shivered internally.  “The Hodags will be ready by oh-six-hundred tomorrow.”

“Negative, Sergeant,” Handy said, shaking his head.  “You’ll be ready by twenty-two-hundred.  Tonight.”

“But sir…”  Hobbes fought for control, and the colonel waited, a bland look on his pasty moon face.  “My team just got back from a sweep-and-secure of the mall.”  Where I lost both my sergeant and my medic, he wanted to add, but didn’t.  “The guys are spent.”

The drac touched Hobbes’ shoulder, and the soldier almost squirmed away.

“I really hate to do this, Sergeant, but… I do my best work at night.”

Ignoring both, Handy said, “I’ve already reassigned a medic to replace the one you lost, and your team is gearing up as we speak.”  He eyed both the soldier and the vampire at his side.  “Dismissed.”


Hobbes didn’t even know the mission’s parameters or objective, and he suspected it was already well into FUBAR territory.  He stalked the wide hallway toward the gymnasium, the drac eerily silent beside him.  The vampire’s proximity made his skin crawl, but the uneasy truce had held since the dracs first approached the remnants of the world’s governments and offered their assistance.  It seemed the romeros’ blood was useless to them.  That and the fact the dracs enjoyed the myriad perks of a functioning society.

And now command has yoked my team to one of the fuckers.

“Why me?” Hobbes muttered, so soft no human would have heard.

“It is not as the Colonel claimed, you know,” the drac said.  “Your team is not the only one available.”  It frowned, pursing its lips.  “You have an… interesting record.  Did you know that?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“You have been out on thirty-three missions and have returned each time without a single injury to show for it.”

“Yeah, so?  A lot of guys can say that.”

“No, Sergeant.  They cannot.  More interesting is your team has suffered at least one fatality on each outing, yet you survive.”  It glanced at Hobbes with one eyebrow raised.  “Curious, is it not?”

Thirty-three?  Had he really lost so many?  No… it said at least.  The true tally was north of fifty.  Fifty-two, counting Briggs and Garcia.

“I guess I’m just lucky.”  If only he could shield the others with that luck.

“Perhaps.”  It said the word not so much in agreement as a prelude to further study.

Hobbes glanced up at the drac.  “So you think my luck will rub off on you?  Sorry, Specialist, but I don’t think it works that way.  In fact, I think it saps from other sources; a zero-sum game.”

“Perhaps,” it repeated, though with less interest.  It straightened.  “Sergeant, I am interested in neither undermining nor suborning your team to my will.  I am only here in an advisory and aid capacity.”

Hobbes didn’t look at the drac.  “Then advise me on why it’s so important to send my team back into the suck without rack time.”

The drac made a soft, weird humming noise like a kitten’s growl.

“Have you noticed the creatures seem more… organized of late?”

Hobbes halted mid-step and stared at the drac, who had continued for another two.

In the last clusterfuck they’d attacked from all sides—nothing unusual there—but they had swarmed Briggs first, bypassing Hobbes to get there; it was that detail that so bothered Handy.  Hobbes thought at the time it was because Briggs oozed blood from an earlier wound, but now…

“Are you saying they’re getting smarter?”

“Your human leaders are uncertain, but we think not.”

“Then… what?”

“That is what I am here to discover.”

Hobbes arched an eyebrow.

“So you are as clueless as I am.”  He sighed.  “That’s just fucking great.”

“Not exactly.  I know where we are going.”  The drac hesitated.  “And what we are likely to find there.”

“Me too.  More romeros.”

The drac shook its head almost sadly.

“No, Sergeant.  Something far worse.  A leader.”